Fat bikes use soft, wide tires inflated to only about 2 to 4 pounds per square inch. They've become a popular winter activity over the past few years. / Ellen Creager/Detroit Free Press/MCT
PLOVER — Mark Scotch, 58, thought he’d finally found a place to practice his new hobby of winter biking.
The Tomorrow River State Trail, a state-owned trail near his Plover home, seemed like a good place to train for races. But he said he ran into a disagreement with other users of the trail this past winter, namely snowmobilers, whose vehicles travel much faster than his bike.
Winter biking, made possible by fat bikes — mountain bikes with tires 4 to 5 inches wide — is an increasingly popular activity. Portage County, however, doesn’t have a designated trail where bicyclists can ride during the winter.
“I try to train for biking in the winter, and there really hasn’t been any place to bike,” Scotch said.
Scotch asked the Parks Commission on June 12 to have winter access to about five miles of the trail, during a time when biking now is banned. Scotch said the only place he can bike in the winter is in the street, which is damaging to the tires because of the salt on the roads.
Scotch requested 2½ miles of access between Hoover and Kennedy avenues, and also 2½ miles beginning after either Amherst Junction or Lake Emily. Between those two stretches , Scotch requested bicycle access to the horse trail. He said bicyclists would take care of grooming the trail.
Scott Cole, 50, of Stevens Point manages Hostel Shoppe Recumbents and said denying access to bicyclists in the winter is unfair because people pay for yearlong passes to use the trail.
“If the pass is going to say ‘year-round,’ we should have some type of access,” Cole said.
But Kathy Miner, secretary of the Almond Sno-Eagles, a snowmobile club, disagrees.
“Fat tire bikes have nine months out of the year,” said Miner, 41, of Almond, who noted that snowmobilers have only up to three months a year to enjoy their sport.
Cole’s store has stocked fat bikes for four years, and he said he sold more than 25 this past winter — more than double the sales from his first year selling the product. But other people might hold off on buying the bikes, he said, because they don’t have anywhere in the county to test ride them.
Miner, however, said snowmobilers don’t want to share the trail in the winter because of the vehicles’ differing speeds. The speed limit on the trail is 55 mph.
Scotch and Cole said snowmobilers and bikers have shared trails in other places, including races throughout the United States. Scotch said everyone could safely share the space if they wear proper lights or reflective gear.
Portage County Parks Director Gary Speckmann said he wants to accommodate winter bikers’ request, but Tomorrow River State Trail might not be the place to do it.
Speckmann said his department found another place in the town of Sharon, northeast of Jordan Park, where the county could build a network of trails designated for winter biking.
“This area would be highly desirable for that type of activity,” Speckmann said.
If the county decides to build a new network of trails, rather than allow winter biking on the Tomorrow River State Trail, Speckmann said at least half of the project’s funding would have to come from the state Department of Natural Resources because of the high cost to create the trails. The project also would not move forward until after the coming winter because the county won’t know whether it has received grant funding until after Jan. 1.
Scotch said he thinks designated trails would be better than his request, other than the fact that the Tomorrow River State Trail already exists.
The Parks Commission is updating the master plan for outdoor recreation, which was adopted in 1997 and did not address winter biking or other season-specific sports. The commission plans to host a public hearing at 5 p.m. July 31 at Jordan Park to hear the public’s input on the Tomorrow River State Trail before adopting a new plan.
Depending on what issues come up at the hearing, Speckmann said he doesn’t expect the final plan to be completed any earlier than September.
Sari can be reached 715-345-2257. Follow her on Twitter as @Sari_Lesk.